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What a weekend

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – If the inaugural Canadiens Fantasy Camp was a resounding success, the second edition exceeded all expectations and left participants with a lifetime of precious memories.

Twenty-seven people between the ages of 19 and 65 took part in the unique experience this time around. They came to Montreal from all across North America – representing seven Canadian provinces and six U.S. states – to spend three days celebrating their passion for the winningest franchise in NHL history, and make some new friends along the way, too.

Photo Credit: Ludovic Lord

It all began on Friday, November 20th with a road trip down to the Brooklyn, NY to see Michel Therrien’s troops battle the Islanders at the Barclays Center accompanied by Habs alums Gaston Gingras, Rejean Houle and Mats Naslund, as well as veteran referee Kerry Fraser. That was followed by a midnight tour of the “War Room” at NHL HQ in Manhattan, and a visit with Senior Vice President of Player Safety Stephane Quintal and his staff.

On Saturday, campers gathered in Times Square for a group photograph, before making the five-hour bus ride to Lake Placid, NY for a practice at Herb Brooks Arena, site of the famous “Miracle on Ice” during the 1980 Winter Olympics. There, they were given their official Montreal Canadiens gear – a helmet, a pair of gloves, pants, a pair of socks, red and white home and away jerseys, and a selection of Canadiens apparel.

Back in Montreal on Sunday, campers hit the ice at the Bell Centre for an early-morning skate ahead of a full-length game later in the day. Pierre Turgeon and Patrice Brisebois joined Gingras, Houle, Naslund and Fraser to run participants through drills, before they met guest coaches Guy Lafleur and Yvan Cournoyer on site. A quick trip to the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard to watch the Canadiens’ morning skate was up next, and then it was game time back in downtown Montreal. Things finally wrapped up with participants taking in a tilt against the Islanders from the comfort of a Bell Centre loge.

“I’ve had the experience of skating on a few NHL rinks, but this was just surreal. Coming out of the Zamboni entrance, they actually introduced us as players for the game. That’s when it gave me sort of a chill. Now, I was experiencing something I hadn’t ever experienced in my life. There were cameras on you and people in the stands. It was so much sensory overload that it was a fantasy come true,” shared Brad Erautt, a Vancouver resident, who took part in the Canadiens Fantasy Camp experience for the first time in 2015-16. “This really ignited my passion again. The Bell Centre is a such a great building. It’s an amazing, amazing place. Sitting on the bench with Guy Lafleur or Yvan Cournoyer as your coach, playing with Gaston Gingras, it was like a dream. It was something that brought me back in time, and it put a smile on my face. I’ve always been a Habs fan, but I’m really, really a Habs fan now. It was the best experience of my life.”

Fellow first-timer Dr. Alan Dackiw shared similar thoughts after returning home to Texas.

Photo Credit: Ludovic Lord

“I grew up in Winnipeg in the 70s. Yvan Cournoyer was my favorite player back then. All my life, I wanted to meet him. I have a letter from him and a picture that I got when I was eight years old. The opportunity to come to Montreal to meet him was what made it special,” praised Dackiw, who, like Erautt, cherished his time skating on the Bell Centre ice. “Just getting dressed and everybody putting on the uniforms was so special. You look across the room and see Guy Lafleur and Yvan Cournoyer there, too. Then, they’re standing behind you and coaching you. You kind of have to stop yourself a few times when you’re playing. I made sure to look around every five or 10 minutes to appreciate exactly where we were. It’s something I’ll always cherish.”

Fort McMurray, AB resident Shane Britt, who was taking part in the Canadiens Fantasy Camp for a second time, offered up a glowing review, too.

“The camp really exposed us to some different and unique experiences that someone from Alberta wouldn’t normally get a chance to do. Playing in the Bell Centre has really been one of the highlights of my hockey career, for sure. Getting back together with Gaston Gingras was special. He’s just an outstanding human being. He had a lot of fun coaching us and giving us a hard time,” cracked Britt, who was one of six returning Fantasy Camp participants from 2014-15. “You really get to know some of the staff and the alumni when you’re there. When it’s over, you’re already looking forward to coming back and seeing how they’re doing the next year.”

So, did organizers Stephane Verret and Angelo Ruffolo accomplish their goal of providing participants with an experience they won’t soon forget? The answer to that is most definitely yes.

“The way we realized it was such a great success was by the way guys reacted, especially on the last day. Some of them had tears in their eyes. That’s the ultimate satisfaction. It’s not that we delivered such a great product, it’s that we actually touched people emotionally,” offered Ruffolo, the Canadiens’ senior coordinator of business development and events. “That pushes us to do bigger and better things. We like to challenge ourselves. A lot of guys are saying that this is the new bar that’s been set, and they’re waiting to see what we’re going to do next year.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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